중앙데일리

Diplomacy, and threats, over Dokdo

Apr 19,2006

At a Pohang port, maritime police officers drilling yesterday in preparation for threatened action to block Japanese ships from entering the Dokdo islet area off Korea’s east coast. All maritime police officers are on standby. [NEWSIS]

In a classic “who blinks first” standoff, Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon warned yesterday that Tokyo would be responsible for the consequences if it moved ahead with a seabed-mapping voyage to waters near Dokdo, off Korea’s east coast.
On Monday, reports from Tokyo said that the Japanese had offered to cancel the voyage if Seoul retreated from efforts to rename seabed features in the area of the islets, occupied by Korea but claimed by Japan.
Mr. Ban refused yesterday to confirm those reports, saying he could not discuss matters under discussion, although other officials did confirm them privately.
The Korean government offered its own hints of a compromise. Although saying Seoul would continue to press for a name change of a sea valley in the area, Mr. Ban said a cancellation of the Japanese exploration voyage would provide some room for negotiations.
“Both sides are still making efforts to come up with a diplomatic solution on this issue,” the minister said.
Korean officials have said that sovereignty over the Dokdo islets was not negotiable, but Seoul would also be open to negotiations with Tokyo on setting the boundaries of their two exclusive economic zones in the sea that separates them.
Four earlier rounds of negotiations on that issue were fruitless, and on Tuesday Mr. Ban also threatened to extend the area in which it claims exploitation rights by basing the sea boundary on Dokdo rather than Ulleung to the west. An exclusive economic zone, an area that ships from other nations can transit freely but not exploit commercially, extends 200 nautical miles from a country’s shoreline (including island shorelines) or until it meets the zone of a neighboring country.
The Japanese media reported yesterday that two exploration vessels that left Tokyo on Monday for the port of Sakaiminato in southeastern Japan had again put to sea from the latter port. A Japanese government official said yesterday that the vessels will be shadowed at a distance by coast guard vessels, but there were conflicting reports about if or when they would try to enter the disputed sea area near Dokdo. Officials in Seoul said yesterday they could not confirm the departure of the Japanese ships, but claimed to be monitoring the situation closely.
Speaking of the Japanese, one official here said yesterday, “It’s obvious they are strategically probing for reactions by moving the vessels from point to point.”
Japan did not notify Korea of the ships’ departure from Tokyo, officials here said.
Seoul was also showing a bit of muscle. Twenty additional maritime police ships have been dispatched to the Dokdo area, beefing up the force there in addition to the handful usually on patrol in the area.
Korean officials interpreted the departure of the Japanese ships from Tokyo’s port as thrusting the dispute into a more serious phase. They said Seoul’s strategy had been to try to keep the ships in port, but that the Japanese had dispatched them without waiting for a reply to its offer to cancel the voyage in return for a Korean withdrawal of its name-change proposal.
Here in Seoul and at maritime police bases, the government appeared to be readying an action plan to physically block the Japanese ships from entering Korea’s claimed waters if they attempt to do so. Song Min-soon, the Blue House chief secretary for foreign and security policy, said yesterday that Seoul might employ “realistic measures” to stop the vessels.
Japanese-speaking policemen have been put on at least some police craft in the area to man loudspeakers warning any approaching ships to reverse course; officials said Korean ships might also try to physically push the boats out of the area as they do intruding North Korean ships.
If those measures fail, Seoul has warned that it would not hesitate to seize the ships, a move that Tokyo has warned would be a violation of international law allowing for “innocent passage” even through exclusive economic zones. Maritime police officials said yesterday its special forces have been practicing boarding maneuvers for several days.
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said the purpose of the voyage was to conduct scientific research in its own exclusive economic zone in accordance with international law.
Tokyo’s second-ranking diplomat, Shotaro Yachi, was quoted by Kyodo News Agency as complaining that Japan has not conducted such surveys in the disputed area for the past 30 years, although South Korea has done so for the past four years despite Tokyo’s protests.
Mr. Song, the Blue House security official, denied yesterday that Tokyo had ever lodged any complaints about those surveys.
The Blue House said an “emergency meeting” was convened yesterday with President Roh Moo-hyun presiding; participants included military, intelligence and maritime agency leaders.
Any bilateral dispute between Japan and Korea quickly leads to public outrage in both nations, but particularly in Korea where memories of Japan’s colonial rule from 1910 to 1945 are still fresh; public outrage translates into political pressure to be tough.
The United States, which has security treaties with both nations, appeared to be trying to stay out of the matter yesterday while suggesting that it had no dispute with Korea’s claim to Dokdo.
Robert Ogburn, the U.S. Embassy spokesman here, said yesterday, “The United States accepts the status quo. We have no position on the legal aspects of the islets. We hope that Korea and Japan can settle the matter peacefully.”


by Brian Lee


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